Because of the large number of wrecks and the treacherous waters around Chatham, in 1806, Congress appropriated $5,000 for a lighthouse in order to guide ships safely past Chatham.
This was 9 years after the establishment of the Cape's first lighthouse at North Truro. A second appropriation of $2,000 was made in 1808. In those times, lighthouses were identified not by the timing of their blinks but by the number of their beacons.
In order to distinguish the two Lights -- Chatham and Highland -- it was decided that the Chatham station would have two fixed white lights. Therefore, two wooden towers on moveable wooden skids were built.
The lighting equipment consisted of six lamps with 8 1/2-inch reflectors, and green glass lenses in front of them. A small house was also built, with one bedroom. Samuel Nye was approved as the first keeper by President Thomas Jefferson in 1808.
By the late 1830's, the towers had fallen into disrepair. In 1841, the Treasury Department had the original towers taken down, rebuilt and updated with 14 inch reflectors. In 1845 Angeline Nickerson, took over as keeper from her husband Simeon after his death. When the former keeper tried to oust her and reclaim his post, President Taylor ruled in favor of Angeline who served for a decade.
In 1857, the Chatham Lights received new Fresnel lenses considered engineering marvels at that time. Each showed a fixed white light and were fueled by lard oil. In November 1870, a tremendous storm hit Cape.
Before the storm, the Chatham lights were 228 feet from the edge of a 50-foot bluff. The storm broke through the outer beaches accelerating erosion. By 1877 the light towers stood only 48 feet from the edge of the bluff and were in danger of falling into the sea.
So, the lighthouses were moved across the road and rebuilt in cast-iron along with two one and one-half-story wood frame houses for the keeper, the assistant keeper, and their families.
By the early 1900s, the Lighthouse Board began phasing out twin light stations as an unnecessary expense. Consequently, in 1923 one of the towers was dismantled and rebuilt in Eastham.
It became known as Nauset Light. The other remains at its original site at the end of Shore Road. A new rotating lens was placed in the remaining tower, along with an incandescent oil-vapor lamp. This was electrified in 1939. The intensity was increased from 30,000 to 800,000 candlepower.
In 1969, the Fresnel lens and the entire lantern were removed and replaced with modern aerobeacons producing a rotating 2.8- million-candlepower light. A new, larger lantern was constructed to house it.. Five years later, the old lantern and lens were put on display on the grounds of the Atwood House Museum, the oldest oldest house in Chatham. In 1982 the light was automated. The 1877 keeper's dwelling is still used by the Coast Guard.
Today radar and satellite technology provide the main means by which ships navigate. However, the Chatham Light Beacon continues in service as an active aid to navigation and as a reminder of Chatham's unique history. The Lighthouse is open periodically for the public to tour.
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